Entertainment

08.04.14

'Guardians of the Galaxy' Is Not a Watershed Moment for Women

A record number of women bought tickets to see ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ suggesting a solo female superhero movie is on the way. Think again.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a wonderful, funny, and unexpectedly fresh superhero movie. And now that the film has made a whopping $94 million in its opening weekend, it’s time to move on from that first question—is this movie any good?—to the second one: what does its blockbuster success mean?

To that regard, people are seizing on a crucial tidbit from the film’s exit polling. It appears that 44 percent of Guardians’ sizable audience was women, the most ever for a movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (The previous record was held by The Avengers, which drew 40 percent female ticket-buyers.)

The takeaway: this is a big deal! The success of Guardians of the Galaxy maybe, just maybe, could be a watershed moment for women. And maybe, just maybe, the solo female superhero movie that we’ve been clamoring for—at least according to pop-culture think pieces—may finally be around the corner.

Sadly, that’s just not the case. But everyone is forgiven for thinking that it could be.

That exit polling is a fun little statistic, sure. But the hoopla over it reflects some strange and antiquated thinking. First of all, women have been going to see superhero movies for a long time now, as evidenced by the fact that the 44 percent statistic for Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t that much higher than the 40 percent for The Avengers. The whole hand-to-the-mouth gasping thing we do when learning that women go see these films is horribly retrograde. We spin the stats as progressive, but the whole obsession over them is the complete opposite, fostering stereotypes that men like action and women like romance and never the two shall meet.

(For the record, there is both action and romance in Guardians of the Galaxy, as there is in Man of Steel, The Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man, and just about every single superhero movie that gets released.)

“I think they were a little taken aback when I choseGuardians, because there were ones that would make a lot more sense if you were a romantic-comedy writer or something like that.”

But beyond the exit polling, people are getting good vibes from the positive response to Zoe Saldana’s ass-kicking alien warrior Gamora in the film. Mic.com’s Julianne Ross says that, with Gamora, Guardians of the Galaxy “finally gives us the female superhero we deserve.”

Like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in The Avengers franchise, Gamora gets to play with the boys in a way that’s not supposed to feel token. (Though I’d say it’s impossible not to see their presence in theses films, wonderful as they are, as not token in almost every way.) “She’s not just a strong female character for the sake of having a strong female character, either,” Ross writes. “She plays an important role in the trajectory of the story, too; there's no Trinity Syndrome here, a phrase coined by the Dissolve's Tasha Robinson's to describe the recent phenomenon of strong female protagonists in films that have nothing meaningful to do.”

But if we’re going to count the mere presence of a female character as progress in this genre, then we should also acknowledge what a proud moment this is for the talking raccoon and walking tree communities, both of whom also see their population represented in major roles in Guardians of the Galaxy. Plus, as Ross also points out, it's hard not to take issue with the blatant sexualization of Gamora and Black Widow, or the fact that Gamora isn’t just allowed to kick ass and take names. She also has to fall in love with the film’s male lead along the way.

Sure, good looks and a strong right hook aren’t mutually exclusive, but can we all agree it’s a little icky that even the actress herself has admitted in interviews that Gamora’s sexuality is a knowing ploy to, as she puts it, “get the teenage boy vote” at the box office?

That’s not to discount Gamora, or to insinuate that her character is not complex. How far we’ve come from Megan Fox washing cars in bathing suits in Transformers to Zoe Saldana getting to play a (mostly) fully realized superhero in a major Marvel movie. Gamora even gets an equally complicated—though far more annoying—sister in Karen Gillan’s Nebula in the film. Even still, a lot of people aren’t satisfied.

“Both of these characters are so impressively crafted and so engaging on screen that it’s hard not to feel cheated,” writes Britt Hayes in Screen Crush. “The fact that we leave the theater wanting to see more of Gamora and Nebula is a real testament to the power of their characters, and to our desire to see more women taking up space in film—especially ones where they get to kick so much ass.”

That takes us full circle to the frustrating headlines being made about the amount of women who bought tickets to see Guardians of the Galaxy this weekend. The argument that women need to prove that they’ll go see a superhero movie starring a woman is ridiculous. If the movie is good, they’ll obviously go. Women—and men—go see action movies starring women all the time, or at least once in a blue moon when Hollywood decides to actually release them. Hell, just last weekend Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy trounced The Rock’s Hercules at the box office. Why do we still need convincing that these kinds of films don’t have an audience, female or otherwise?

The problem, it appears is institutional—a fact that should surprise no one who is repeatedly flummoxed about why Hollywood doesn’t make movies starring women when audiences love to go see movies starring women.

For example, did you know that one of the credited screenwriters for Guardians of the Galaxy was a woman, the first time that’s ever been the case for a Marvel film? And now that you know that, did you automatically assume that she faced her fair share of sexism in pursuit of that distinction? Well, you’re right on that latter point.

Nicole Perlman was selected in 2009 to Marvel’s writer’s program, in which she was offered several lesser-known Marvel titles to work on before ultimately choosing Guardians of the Galaxy. "I can’t tell you what the other titles were that they were offering up on the table, but I can tell you that one of them was a little bit more appropriate for me, just based on gender,” she said. “I think they were a little taken aback when I chose Guardians, because there were ones that would make a lot more sense if you were a romantic-comedy writer or something like that." 

How depressing. But worse than that was the response of Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige when asked whether the analysis of these box-office trends surrounding his movies and their popularity with women, the positive responses to Black Widow and Gamora, the embracing of a female screenwriter, and the groundswell of demand would lead to him finally greenlighting a solo female superhero movie.

Basically, he’s too busy right now.

“I hope we do it sooner rather than later,” he said. “But we find ourselves in the very strange position of managing more franchises than most people have … But it does mean you have to put one franchise on hold for three or four years in order to introduce a new one? I don’t know. Those are the kinds of chess matches we’re playing right now.”

Check mate.